Democracy and despotism of the majority

As political predictions go it took a good deal longer to unfold than he may have expected, but it rings a great deal truer than much of the pundtitry of our time.

Have we at last entered an age when our masters can in fact do that which we were warned to fear most – those who can destroy not only the body but also the soul, and I’m not referring to the speculations of Donald Tusk about the eternal destiny of his adversaries in the Battle of Brexit. It is a fearful prospect.

Fetters and headsmen were the coarse instruments which tyranny formerly employed; but the civilization of our age has refined the arts of despotism… The excesses of monarchical power had devised a variety of physical means of oppression: the democratic republics of the present day have rendered it as entirely an affair of the mind…

Under the absolute sway of an individual despot the body was attacked in order to subdue the soul, and the soul escaped the blows which were directed against it and rose superior to the attempt; but such is not the course adopted by tyranny in democratic republics; there the body is left free, and the soul is enslaved.

These were words written nearly 200 years ago. They described an anticipated tyranny whose seed was seen in the very structure of the evolving democracy of the United States of America. For a number of reasons – geographical, institutional and cultural – that seed did not germinate or flower in the lifetime of the author of those words. Nor did it flower in the lifetime of many of the subsequent generations – until now. 

In the past several decades, with the shrinking of the world and the spread of democracy, what Alexis de Tocqueville feared might happen to the fledgling democratic polity of the United States is now to be feared across much of the globe. Indeed it may no longer be just a fear. It may be our lived experience.

This lived experience is already a reality in the United States and is preoccupying any number of thinkers in that country who are contemplating the unfolding of many of the dangers feared by de Tocqueville. Among them are Yuval Levin in The Fractured Republic, and Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed  (Yale University Press, 2018). On this side of the Atlantic, Douglas Murray engaged with the same issues in The Strange Death of Europe.

In Levin’s view the late 1960s and the bulk of the 1970s constituted the darkest, most ominous time in America’s post-war path-—it was the moment when we could no longer deny that something fundamental was changing and that, in some profound way, America seemed to be coming apart under the pressure of “the forces of individualism, decentralization, deconsolidation, fracture, and diffusion.”

Levin is not a pessimist. Neither is Deneen, who argues that the flawed foundations of liberalism have led us into a dangerous cul de sac. This unsustainable politics has provoked a reaction which has brought us into a culture war – bordering on a “cold” civil war – which is going to get worse before it gets better. Both see a hard time ahead.

What is truly remarkable is that de Tocqueville foresaw this nearly two centuries ago, foresaw it happening at the moment which mankind abandoned that understanding of itself which identified human solidarity as the key to a politics of peace and prosperity. While he was fascinated by the great good he saw in the democratic politics of America in the 1830s, it did not blind him to a certain paradox he perceived in the system.

De Tocqueville, grappling with that paradox, wrote in Democracy in America that he held it to be “an impious and an execrable maxim that, politically speaking, a people has a right to do whatsoever it pleases”, even though he still asserted that all authority resides in the will of the majority. What de Tocqueville feared – and what we now have stalking the body politic of numerous nations across the world – was the tyranny which the apparently simple and benign concept of majority rule seemed to forebode.

We now identify these as populist movements – and they occupy all sectors of the political spectrum, all equally threatening to our freedoms. What do they all have in common? They are movements riding, with passionate intensity, on waves of emotion and prejudice. They have abandoned the principles of justice and have replaced them with the principles of power and majority rule. They simply neither accept nor recognise that majority rule is no more than a technique by which we organise government, not a principle of justice. They are technocrats, not democrats. They are those who consider themselves not to be populists but to be “on the right side of history” while their opponents are the populists.

De Tocqueville saw it this way:

A general law—which bears the name of Justice—has been made and sanctioned, not only by a majority of this or that people, but by a majority of mankind. The rights of every people are consequently confined within the limits of what is just.

When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right which the majority has of commanding, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind. It has been asserted that a people can never entirely outstep the boundaries of justice and of reason in those affairs which are more peculiarly its own, and that consequently, full power may fearlessly be given to the majority by which it is represented. But this language is that of a slave.

Majority rule is a dangerous Leviathan in a society where relativism has resulted in Justice being denied as a universal principle. For that reason he is of the opinion that while in practical terms one social power must always be made to predominate over the others, liberty is endangered when the vehemence of this power is unchecked because it is the inalienable will of the people.

Unlimited power is in itself a bad and dangerous thing; human beings are not competent to exercise it with discretion, and God alone can be omnipotent, because His wisdom and His justice are always equal to His power. But no power upon earth is so worthy of honor for itself, or of reverential obedience to the rights which it represents, that I would consent to admit its uncontrolled and all-predominant authority. When I see that the right and the means of absolute command are conferred on a people or upon a king, upon an aristocracy or a democracy, a monarchy or a republic, I recognize the germ of tyranny…

But it is his observations on the power of public opinion, in league with the tyrannies he foresees, that he most prescient and worrying.

Even in his day he saw public opinion in the United States as being far more influential than in Europe. In America, he argues, “as long as the majority is still undecided, discussion is carried on; but as soon as its decision is irrevocably pronounced, a submissive silence is observed, and the friends, as well as the opponents, of the measure unite in assenting to its propriety.”

I know no country in which there is so little true independence of mind and freedom of discussion as in America. In any constitutional state in Europe every sort of religious and political theory may be advocated and propagated abroad… But in a nation where democratic institutions exist, organized like those of the United States, there is but one sole authority, one single element of strength and of success, with nothing beyond it.

Is he exaggerating here? Even if he was in terms of what prevailed in his own time, it is certainly not an exaggeration for our time. The Republic of Ireland might be taken as a sample of what the prevailing democracy now offers the dissenter. A two thirds electoral majority effectively legalized abortion there last year. Immediately the defeated minority was jeered at and told by the victorious majority, “It’s over.”  Months later, a public representative, one of those who defended to right to life  of the nation’s pre-born children, was shouted at in the street, “Ha, you lost”.

The reality is, the dangerous reality is, that power exercised in this way, as was done by the Democratic Party’s populist regime under the Obama administrations, produces a populist counter response and gives us the Presidency of Donald Trump.

De Tocqueville foresaw this kind of culture crippling freedom of thought and speech. He argues that within the barriers set by public opinion, the opinion of the majority, an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them.

Not that he is exposed to the terrors of an auto-da-fe, but he is tormented by the slights and persecutions of daily obloquy. His political career is closed forever, since he has offended the only authority which is able to promote his success. Every sort of compensation, even that of celebrity, is refused to him. Before he published his opinions he imagined that he held them in common with many others; but no sooner has he declared them openly than he is loudly censured by his overbearing opponents, whilst those who think without having the courage to speak, like him, abandon him in silence. He yields at length, oppressed by the daily efforts he has been making, and he subsides into silence, as if he was tormented by remorse for having spoken the truth.

He imagines this new sovereign power, this new Leviathan, saying to its subjects,

You are free to think differently from me, and to retain your life, your property, and all that you possess; but if such be your determination, you are henceforth an alien among your people… Your fellow-creatures will shun you like an impure being, and those who are most persuaded of your innocence will abandon you too, lest they should be shunned in their turn. Go in peace! I have given you your life, but it is an existence comparably worse than death.”

How real all this now seems for the defeated and politically marginalized “losers” of Ireland’s battles for life and natural marriage? They are experiencing life as envisaged by Adrian Vermeule, Professor of Constitutional Law in Harvard Business School, when he summed up in First Things,the forms that “death” is now taking in the heart of our liberal democracies:

Progressive liberalism has its own cruel sacraments—especially the shaming and, where possible, legal punishment of the intolerant or illiberal—and its own liturgy, the Festival of Reason, the ever-repeated overcoming of the darkness of reaction. Because the celebration of the festival essentially requires, as part of its liturgical script, a reactionary enemy to be overcome, liberalism ceaselessly and restlessly searches out new villains to play their assigned part. Thus the boundaries of progressive demands for conformity are structurally unstable, fluid, and ever shifting, not merely contingently so—there can be no lasting peace. Yesterday the frontier was divorce, contraception, and abortion; then it became same-sex marriage; today it is transgenderism; tomorrow it may be polygamy, consensual adult incest, or who knows what?

De Tocqueville concluded that monarchical institutions of the past had thrown odium upon despotism. Let us beware, he said, lest democratic republics should restore oppression, and should render it – despotism – less odious and less degrading in the eyes of the many, by making it still more onerous to the few.

Have we disregarded his warning, to our cost?